Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto on Tuesday accused John Fortunato of flouting campaign finance rules by turning a recent food giveaway into a political rally at a Kenner charter school.
The sheriff said he is considering filing an ethics complaint against his election rival, adding the event amounted to an "in-kind" contribution that put the donor who provided the free food over the legal limit of giving for the March 24 election pitting him against Fortunato.
"This is an obvious example of them trying to skirt campaign finance laws," Lopinto said in a telephone interview with The Advocate. "If it's not an ethics violation, it absolutely should be one."
The Fortunato campaign denied wrongdoing, saying the giveaway was not a campaign event, even though it was attended by Fortunato and about 40 of his volunteers, many of them wearing political T-shirts.
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"I get the fact that Joe might be upset that he didn't have that same opportunity and, as a candidate, he may not like it," said Greg Buisson, Fortunato's media consultant. "But as a lawyer, he should know these people had a First Amendment right to wear these T-shirts at this event. It's clearly not an ethics violation."
Buisson accused Lopinto of "hypocrisy," saying it was clear from new campaign finance reports that the sheriff has received tens of thousands of dollars from companies run by Shane Guidry, one of the most influential — and controversial — donors in Louisiana politics.
Under state law, a donor may give only $5,000 to a candidate in each election cycle in his own name, although donors may also legally give the same amount through each corporation they control.
"It's a little hypocritical if his argument is that one person gave more than the $5,000 limit," Buisson said. "Every time something doesn't go Joe's way, he cries and complains about it."
Lopinto did not deny Guidry's role as a key financial backer but said he does not know him well. Last week, Guidry hosted a "Dinner & Bird Hunt" at his ranch in Poplarville, Mississippi, at $5,000 per hunter for Lopinto's campaign.
The sheriff said he could not speak about the specifics of his financial disclosures because he has not personally seen the reports, having delegated their compilation to a certified public accountant hired by the campaign.
"He's agreed to help me, and I know he is supporting me," Lopinto said of Guidry, a longtime former reserve deputy in the JPSO and a top aide to Attorney General Jeff Landry. Lopinto called him a "friend of law enforcement" around the state. "The reality of it is, you've got to raise money in races like this," he said.
The new recriminations reflect the increasingly bitter tenor of the campaign as the race to succeed former Sheriff Newell Normand hits its home stretch. The candidates have traded repeated barbs in recent weeks, with each man accusing the other of misrepresenting his experience.
The latest dust-up stemmed from a food giveaway held Saturday at the Kenner Discovery Health Sciences Academy. The event was sponsored by CRC Global Solutions, a local company owned by Ronnie Mains, a friend and supporter of Fortunato.
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Campaign finance reports show that CRC has contributed at least $2,500 to the Fortunato campaign. The company also recently contributed a truck-sized Fortunato banner that was on display at Saturday's event.
Buisson said that sign would be reported on the campaign's next financial report as an "in-kind" contribution, defined under state law as something of value, other than money, that must be reported when the value exceeds $25. In-kind contributions count toward the same $5,000 limit imposed on individuals and companies under state election law.
It's not clear how much money CRC spent on the boxes of food the Fortunato volunteers distributed Saturday. A school advertisement said the first 500 families to arrive at the school would receive a box.
Fortunato said CRC did not donate the food to his campaign but merely allowed Fortunato volunteers to distribute the items at the school, which advertised the event on its website.
A video posted by Jambalaya News, a publication serving the local Hispanic community, shows a number of people wearing Fortunato shirts and the candidate himself greeting vehicles arriving at the campus.
Fortunato said the volunteers had been dressed for a day of neighborhood canvassing when he learned of the giveaway at Kenner Discovery and redirected his team to the campus.
"This was no different than people wearing campaign T-shirts at a school fair or other school event," Buisson said. "The school headmaster was on the grounds and could have objected to it."
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Kenner Discovery's head of school, Patty Glaser, said school officials had been "blindsided" by the participation of the Fortunato volunteers. She said the event did not "feel like a political rally," but nevertheless, it was "not proper and should not happen again."
"By the time I got out there, there were probably 75 cars in line, and there wasn't a lot I could do about it at that point. I was not happy about what I saw, but they were so integrated into the distribution of the food that I couldn't very well break it up without causing a great deal of disarray," Glaser said.
Jefferson Parish School Board President Mark Morgan said the Fortunato team did not have permission to campaign on the campus.
Morgan said both the Lopinto and Fortunato campaigns would be receiving letters warning them not to conduct political activities on school campuses.
"No one should be campaigning on campus — period," Morgan said.
Robert Travis Scott, president of the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council, said Fortunato's participation in the giveaway does not appear to be a clear-cut violation of campaign finance laws. He noted that even if the food did constitute an in-kind contribution — which is not settled — it's possible it was provided on a piecemeal basis from different donors.
Further complicating the matter is the fact that some of the volunteers were supporting other candidates for office, among them Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn.
"You can't just declare it's a violation without knowing more details," Scott said.